In 1992, I was a junior in high school in Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire. At the time, Manchester had a population of about 100,000, and during that cold winter it seemed at least half of those people were presidential candidates.
Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Bob Kerrey, and Jerry Brown all made appearances at my high school. Later, I very nearly ran over Governor Brown as he and his entourage darted across an icy street right in front of my car. Then-President Bush visited the mall in which I was working, and the Clintons knocked on doors just down the street from my home. In later years, I would have personal conversations with everyone from Jon Edwards to John Kerry, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Howard Dean, Al Franken (who wasn’t even running) and Vermin Supreme. Celebrities like Martin Sheen, known for playing the fictitious President and Former New Hampshire Governor Josiah Bartlet on “The West Wing” flooded the state to stop for their favorites. I personally heard Wolf Blitzer say “Wolf Blitzer” about a million times, and instantly-recognizable TV journalists asked anyone they could find for the “man on the street” perspective on the electorate, broadcast live in prime time.
It is a level of access to the highest reaches of government and power that almost no citizen will ever have. It is also a level of influence on the outcome of the election only the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire will ever know. And that, in a nutshell, is a problem.
Far from being representative of the nation, Iowa and New Hampshire are among the whitest states in the country. New Hampshire is among the wealthiest, and Iowa is wealthier than most. Iowa and New Hampshire, two low-population states, basically determine the path that presidential elections will take. And it isn’t fair.
Of course, that is not all that is wrong with our electoral system. Access to voting places is dramatically less for people of color. Caucuses are voter suppressive and favor candidates that wealthier, whiter candidates prefer. By the time many larger, more diverse states get to vote in primaries, major candidates have left the race because they fared poorly in the non-representative early voting states. In the era of Citizens United, corporations get basically an unlimited and anonymous avenue to influence the elections, without any accountability for factual accuracy. Many electronic voting machines do not leave a physical audit trail, which leave us vulnerable to tampering. And now, in 40% of the general presidential elections this century, the electoral college voted against the will of the people and installed a president who lost the popular vote.
All of that is before the Russians got involved.
So how do we fix it?
Here are eight specific steps we could take now, before the 2020 elections, to ensure free and fair voting for everyone.
- Amend the constitution to abolish the electoral college
The electoral college, ostensibly there to protect small states from larger states, is an anachronism no longer necessary in the modern era. In “winner take all” states, it depresses turnout, and it makes votes cast in low-population states much more powerful than those in high population states. In 2016, for example, an elector represented 143,000 people in Wyoming. In New York, however, an elector represented about half a million people. Votes in Wyoming, then were worth more than three times a vote in New York. The small population states tend to skew white, and tend to skew wealthy. We now have the technology to go to a “one-person-one-vote” direct presidential election. And we must.
- Schedule all primary elections for a single and simultaneous 24 hour period.
Before radio, and certainly before television, a staggered primary system ensured candidates could equally reach voters. Now, as a candidate can traverse the country in a matter of hours, and can reach the entire nation via television, radio and the internet, it is no longer necessary to have votes cast over a period of months. Voting in a single national primary would give equal access and power to every voter.
- Shorten the election season
Right now, Congresspeople start fundraising and campaigning for elections as soon as they are elected. The constant need for unlimited sums of money by its nature will give greater power to financial donors than to average constituents. And with Citizens United giving corporations the ability to spend virtually unlimited money on campaigns, without any accountability to the truth, special interest groups like the National Rifle Organization wield enormous power over elections and thus far too much influence over government. If fundraising and campaigning were limited to eight weeks before a primary, and a national primary was held eight weeks before a general election, there would still be four months to vet a candidate, but the shortened nature of the campaign itself would limit the abilities of corporations to spend their way into power.
- Eliminate Caucuses
Caucuses are voter-suppressive and favor the privileged. Held for a limited time at a specific place, they reduce access for the disabled, the poor, parents of young children, shift workers, those without transportation, and more. This disproportionately impacts people of color, union workers, and women.
- Amend the Constitution to reduce corporate influence
Since SCOTUS has given free-rein to corporations to spend as they want, the Constitution must be changed to reduce the power of special interests. Especially the negative ads that corporations fund suppress voter turnout, which disproportionately favors Republicans.
- Revert to paper records and ballots for all voting machines
This will allow a confident recount and reduce the possible influence of hackers.
- Mandate a nationally equal number of voting machines per number of voters nationally.
In primarily urban neighborhoods, which again impact voters of color, there are often long lines to access a very few voting machines. Federal election laws which mandate a certain number of voting machines based on population (Say, one per 2,500 residents in a precinct) would ensure everyone who wants to vote, can.
- Eliminate Gerrymandering
Nationwide, Congressional districts are formed to ensure the party in power remains in power, reducing the ability of minority parties and voters to influence elections. Removing the power of states to set congressional districts and creating a non-partisan committee to do so instead would again restore voting power to individual communities.
While the problems with our electoral system go far deeper than these eight points can fix, enacting them now would at least level the playing field for all voters. The question is whether or not Congress has the moral compass or political will to act.
Contributing Editor: Ben Jackson
Ben Jackson is a writer and father of a chronically ill teenager who somehow still likes him. His non-fiction and opinion pieces have appeared in Patch Media, WBUR's Cognoscenti, and the Penmen Review. His fiction and poetry has been published in New Millennium Writings, The Legendary, 50 Word Stories, and anywhere else he can con an editor into buying his work. He lives in Natick, Massachusetts with his daughter.